The Case of the Immodest Mermaid

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February 24, 2013 by lucieromarin

One of the challenges of hosting story-time with the youngsters of one’s parish is making sure you avoid accidentally reading anything that their parents are opposed to. You can’t always guess what that will be; for example, some parents eschew all fairyland or imaginative fiction, while other parents approve of fairy stories in which narrative roles are strictly traditional (no good dragons.) It’s not surprising that parents should have such a list; if I had children, I’d have one too. It’s just a bit of a challenge making sure that every possible Bad Thing is avoided, while also living up to my own standards (the story must be well-written and well-illustrated. No pious mush.)

So, when I opened one of last week’s books, it occurred to me that one of pages featured a mermaid, and I knew that the mother of one of the children did not let her children watch animated bikini-clad mermaids. This particular mermaid was blessed with an abundance of strategically-flowing golden hair, but her essential nakedness was still fairly obvious. Hmmmm. Well, she wasn’t the point of the story, so I figured I’d solve that problem with my own strategically-placed thumb; the children wouldn’t notice, and I wouldn’t get fired.

Of course, I’d forgotten what children are actually like.

Lucy: He fought in great battles at sea! Hurray!

Little Boy: Why is your thumb on that mermaid?

Lucy: Oh. I have to do that because she isn’t modest.

Little Girl: Why isn’t she modest?

Lucy: She’s not wearing a t-shirt.

Child-Behind-Me: Mermaids always look like that.

Lucy: I know, but your parents won’t like it. We have to respect what they want here, so she needs a t-shirt.

Slightly Older Boy: If she was wearing a t-shirt she’d be a mer-boy. Let me see.

Lucy (inwardly): GAH!!! Stoopid attempt to be modest! It’s only drawn attention to the whole thing!

With the impassioned words, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a young boy!” ringing in my mind like the cry of a thousand accusing angels and/or homeschooling mothers ready to shoot me down with the arrows of righteousness, I moved my hand, turned the page, and insisted that we continue.

Child-Behind-Me: Why don’t you just paint a t-shirt on her? [you could hear the words, “If you really need one that much, weird grown-up,” sort of hovering at the end of the question.]

So, from this incident, I took the following lessons:

1) It’s possible for over-cautiousness to backfire;

2) It’s weird that we can discuss modesty with children, since this means talking about people being undressed, which is the very image that we want them to avoid. (At the same time, I still think that it was good to be honest with them about why I did what I did);

3) Children are authorities on mer-people. I’m not kidding; that boy said, “If she was wearing a t-shirt, she’d be a mer-boy,” the same way we say, “You can get the 431 bus to the city every half-hour on a Saturday.”

4) Really, it’s a good thing that they can have this kind of ‘authority’. When I was in Year Three, a Lebanese girl joined our class; she said, after her first week, that she didn’t like it here, because she couldn’t hear any bombs. Imagine a childhood in which, rather than identifying imaginary mer-genders, you identify real sounds of war.



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